No One Can Explain The Dominance Of Cavalry

The historical consensus holds that the invention of the stirrup was a major development in military history. By permitting the horseman to keep his seat, the simplified story goes, the stirrup changed the dominant strategy from the infantry-based armies of antiquity to the shock cavalry-based armies that came to dominate in the middle ages.

This story seems to make sense. The change in the composition of European armies is real and needs to be explained. (Infantry remained the numerical majority of most armies, but heavy cavalry became more important in determining the outcome of battles.) Horsemen without stirrups used different equipment in different ways than the stirrup-using knights we’re familiar with. The cavalry charge against massed infantry is almost unheard of in antiquity but becomes an extremely important tactic from the early middle ages until well after the ubiquity of firearms.

However, there is no historical consensus on when the stirrup became important in Europe. I’ve seen serious claims ranging from the late 300s to the late 700s. There’s sharp disagreement over very basic claims, like “Was the Battle of Adrianople a triumph of cavalry over infantry?” or “Did the Carolingian military use stirrups?” (I haven’t checked whether these questions were resolved by recent archeological work, but if the answers weren’t obvious 40 years ago, that’s still a notable fact.) The history of the stirrup before it reached Europe, e.g. in India or central Asia, is no clearer.

This is super weird. If the stirrup was such a huge deal, shouldn’t we be able to see its effects? If a historian in the year 3000 were trying to date the advent of the machine gun, and only had fragments of secondary sources and doubtful archeological scraps, it would still be possible because the machine gun so greatly transformed strategy, tactics, and the experience of individual soldiers. (The American Civil War is the only case I can think of where a smart scholar might get the wrong answer.) This is what we see for other massive shifts in historical weapons, such as chariots, castles, and artillery. If the stirrup were anywhere near this important, its effects should be similarly visible.

I’ve read all these historians arguing about the minutiae of manuscripts and archeological finds to set dates on when the stirrup was used where, but if their basic claim about the importance of the stirrup is true, then there should be much simpler avenues to answering the question.

At this point, I’m inclined to think the stirrup was not as overpowering as is commonly asserted. Important, yes, but important on the scale of chainmail or the rifled barrel, not on the level of the phalanx or the nuclear bomb. Not important enough to explain the transition from armies dominated by infantry to armies dominated by cavalry. If it were, its history would be more apparent.

If true, this raises two questions. The first, why so many historians have overstated its importance, is relatively easy to answer. For one thing, contemporary prejudices favor explaining large-scale trends as the natural consequence of technological development. More importantly, historians are like anyone else in that they are biased towards simple and compelling explanations for things. The story of the stirrup transforming combat has enough truth to it to lay the foundation for such a narrative. It fits very well from a purely local perspective. In contrast, broad sociological outside-view checks like the one I’m running here seem, if not rare, then at least uncommon.

The more difficult question is why Europe transitioned from infantry-based armies to cavalry-based armies, if not for stirrups. I’m not sure. It could be a combination of technological factors: larger horses, improved saddles, better armorsmithing, horseshoes, and the temporary loss of the compound bow, together with stirrups, producing a combined effect greater than the sum of its parts. It’s possible, but I don’t trust this type of explanation. Strategic considerations are usually Pareto-distributed in importance, and one major factor tends to overwhelm many medium-size factors.

It could be a matter of economic and social organization: the sharp division between landholding knights extracting wealth from their tenants on the one hand, and peasant farmers with little capital on the other, led to a combination of arms that was perhaps inefficient from a purely military standpoint but crucial with regard to internal coherence, thus leading Carolingian-style feudalism to succeed and spread in spite of some necessary overemphasis on heavy cavalry. This strikes me as plausible but far from certain. The institutional and cultural prominence of knighthood in Europe is consistent with this story, at the very least.

A more exotic version of the prior hypothesis is that Europe transitioned to cavalry not because its cavalry was strong, but because its infantry was weak. If feudalism made it institutionally and ideologically difficult to raise large masses of competent, well-equipped infantry, then perhaps this explains the shift.

I’m not confident in any of these explanations. The more I look into this, the more I think the dominance of cavalry in medieval Europe is a mystery that still needs to be explained.

10 thoughts on “No One Can Explain The Dominance Of Cavalry”

    1. Not the author, but stirrups have a number of useful effects, all basically originating from the ability to get your legs involved in the transmission of force. (I’m getting this both from historical research, and having done medieval swordfighting and spoken to jousters/reenactment folks.)

      For the lance charge, you’re much more likely to keep your seat. Once you’re in a more pitched battle, it also impacts how hard it is to drag you off your horse, as well as hard you can swing a sword.

      To viscerally test this, sit a chair with your feet off the ground and swing an object around. Now stand up and swing it around, and get your hips and legs involved.

      While I don’t think stirrups were the crucial enabling factor the dominance of cavalry in feudal Europe, they were really useful.

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    2. JohnThurloe’s comment covers the mechanics better than I could. The most visible change we see from the extra stability he describes is the transition from the overhand lance, which delivered force from the arm, to the couched lance you’ve seen in jousting, which delivered force from the horse’s momentum. I suspect this was crucial to the development of the mass cavalry charge.

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  1. My simple model is that cavalry is a dominant form of military might in non-centralized states.
    Centralized states can conduct a combination of diplomacy and border management that tends to focus
    on keeping enemies out, rather than preventing the damage of a raid by moving people and wealth to a central, fortified location (The castle).

    If you give up on defending your borders robustly, mobile forces to head off or harass invaders
    become more important. At the same time, the ability to raid as a tool of political pressure
    becomes increasingly important.

    In comparison, a centralized state can organize the movement of huge bodies of men to head off cavalry
    forces and maintain internal lines of communication for response. Communities defending smaller surface areas don’t seem to end up with the knights as anything like the same kind of dominant social order.

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    1. Interesting. This also seems to explain the Napoleonic wars. We can view Napoleon as someone who specialized in overpowering centralized states via pitched battles, but who didn’t really understand how to deal with the anti-occupation strategies of noncentralized states, which is why he struggled in Spain (which is where we get the word “guerrilla”) and Russia.

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      1. There’s also a parallel with Nazi Germany, which destroys the centralized border defenses of France (Also Czechoslovakia and Poland), while bleeding out on the Eastern Front and in Africa.

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        1. Yeah. The Nazis seem pretty good at occupation, largely because they’re so murderous, but it still drains a ton of resources. Maybe they could’ve won the occupation on its own, or the pitched battles against the American-Soviet alliance on its own, but both at the same time is a lot to ask.

          It’s notable that the Soviet Union is very much a centralized state, but the defense in depth strategy lets them get the military benefits of fighting like a decentralized state at the cost of prestige.

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  2. How exactly is it that we can judge any claims like:

    >The cavalry charge […] becomes an extremely important tactic from the early middle ages until well after the ubiquity of firearms.

    That is to say, what do we need to observe from modernity in order to judge reasonably that any particular military technique or technology was or was not important in its time?

    Is it inference from eyewitness reports, or records of army composition + knowledge of who won, or…?

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    1. Yes, those are the main ways. We have some accounts of how battles went (sometimes eyewitness, sometimes not), which often include descriptions of infantry formations being broken by charges, etc. The bureaucratic records of army composition are often pretty bad in the medieval period, but they’re better than nothing. There are some very striking cases of large peasant revolts being crushed by much smaller groups of knights, although the cavalry vs infantry difference isn’t the only thing going on in those cases.

      There’s also weaker inferences we can make from things like the obvious expense of horsemen’s equipment, the cultural prominence of chivalry, etc.

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